04/23/2003 11:00PM

Northerners try beating Snow Chief favorite

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - It looks like a tough assignment on paper, but three northern California trainers are looking forward to running in the $250,000 Snow Chief Stakes, the centerpiece of Saturday's California Gold Rush Day at Hollywood Park.

Trainer Armando Lage admits Excessivepleasure, winner of the $500,000 WinStar Derby and the $125,000 California Breeders' Championship, is the horse to beat.

Still, Lage plans to take a shot in the 1 1/8-mile race for 3-year-olds with Star of Grace. So is Bill Morey Jr., with stakes-placed Winning Stripes, and likewise Allen Severinsen with Tiz a Coup.

Tiz a Coup, a C-Punch Ranch homebred, will be making only his fourth start. Star of Grace, a Granja, Mexico homebred, is starting for the fifth time.

Winning Stripes, second to Ministers Wild Cat in the Golden State Mile, was a $50,000 yearling purchase at Del Mar in 2001. He was a closing fourth behind Ocean Terrace, Ministers Wild Cat, and Illinois Derby winner Ten Most Wanted in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields.

"The Del Mar sale is like shopping at Nordstrom's," said Morey, who is a part owner of the colt.

Winning Stripes, a son of Candy Stripes out of the Marshua's Dancer mare Ali's Dancer, caught Morey's eye immediately.

"You don't see them run like at a 2-year-old sale, but this horse was well-balanced. You could just see when he walked he had a bounce to his step," Morey said.

"I liked the sire," he said. "I had a filly by Candy Stripes. She could run, but she didn't grow tall at all. When we bought him, I thought he would grow a little bigger, and I think he's grown a little bit this year. He has a lot going for him. He's just a bit small. But he wants to come to horses at the end."

Winning Stripes won his maiden on the turf and followed with an allowance win on the dirt before his two stakes tries.

"We will probably go to the turf again after this race, but we're going to keep all our options open," Morey said.

Morey considered running in the California Derby at Bay Meadows two weeks ago but decided against it in order to avoid running twice in a two-week period.

"The timing wasn't perfect," Morey said. "We're coming into this fresh. I brought him down here early, and he worked okay this week. It's important to get down here and get a work over the track."

Severinsen sent Tiz a Coup south on Tuesday. Tiz Coup, a half-brother to Cal Cup winner White Cloud, has won two straight - one on a disqualification - since stretching out to one mile. The distance should be no problem. White Cloud's Cal Cup win was at 1 1/2 miles.

Severinsen also toyed with the idea of the California Derby but said the Snow Chief "has always been in the back of our minds as a game plan. He's got to prove how good he really is. He's still immature but getting better with age. As far as timing goes, this works out. He needs time between races."

Owner-breeder Bob Irvin had planned to breed his outstanding mare, Big Squaw, to Bertrando, but when Bertrando took ill, she was sent to Cee's Tizzy instead.

"The mare seems to do well with the Relaunch line," he said. "We're very proud of the mare. She's kept us in the business."

Tiz a Coup was raised on Irvin's ranch in Nevada. His son, Larry, manages the ranch.

"Larry's been high on the horse since the beginning," Irvin said. "I hope he knows what's he's talking about."

Severinsen, too, heard the raves and believes they are justified.

"The fact he's done what's he done is impressive, but he's still got some physical and mental maturing to do," Severinsen said.

Severinsen trained the dam - "She won her first start at 4 1/2 furlongs as a 2-year-old and later won at 1 1/8 miles on the turf" - as well as White Cloud.

"Having a little history never hurts," he said. "The more you know about any horse from square one helps.

"White Cloud was more nervous. This one is more anxious, more ready to go. He's never run where he's trained. The horse has a lot of class and acts more professional at this age than many horses."

Lage isn't worried about Star of Grace's longshot status.

Star of Grace won his first two starts: a $32,000 claiming tag and a starter allowance race. He was badly beaten in a seven-furlong allowance race at Santa Anita before running second, missing by a head, in an April 3 turf race at Bay Meadows in his first try at one mile.

"He learns every race," Lage said. "Last time was his first time around two turns, and he ran hard all the way even though he broke bad. He has tremendously strong determination. He always tries to outrun anyone he's working with or behind or racing with.

"He's a small horse, not much to look at, but he keeps grinding. He will run a strong race, a lot better than people think."